Tech Insights

Rerouting Power for Wildfire Prevention

May 01, 2024 by Jake Hertz

Researchers have developed a technique to prevent public safety power shut-offs during fire-prone weather conditions.

Modern power lines can pose a wildfire risk, particularly in dry, windy regions. These fires have caused significant destruction to landscapes and communities. Maintaining a safe and reliable power supply in national infrastructure can be challenging, but research could offer solutions.

University of Michigan and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers have discovered how to optimize power flow routes for continuous power supply while reducing the likelihood of igniting wildfires. 


Fire caused by fallen power lines

Fire caused by fallen power lines. Image used courtesy of National Park Service


Power Line Hazards

Overhead power lines in dry, windy conditions can trigger wildfires through various means.

For example, high winds can cause power lines to sway or break, leading to downed lines that generate sparks when contacting the ground or dry vegetation. Another possibility is line contact, such as power lines touching each other or nearby trees, which can produce sparks or electrical arcs that ignite fires. Similarly, line sagging from heat or wind may also bring power lines into contact with vegetation, causing ignition. 

Beyond the lines, equipment failures like faulty transformers or insulators can create sparks that fall onto dry vegetation. The landscape also comes into play, as vegetation growing close to power lines can catch fire from sparking or arcing, further exacerbating the risk of wildfires. 


Fire risk from downed power lines near vegetation

Fire risk from downed power lines near vegetation. Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


For grid operators, the challenge lies in preventing fire hazards without avoiding complete power shut-offs, which can disrupt residents' lives. This requires optimizing power system operations to maintain continuous service while minimizing risks of fire ignitions in vulnerable areas. Balancing fire prevention with power grid resilience will ensure the safety of communities and the functioning of essential infrastructure. 


Rerouting Power for Fire Prevention

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of Michigan researchers addressed the challenge of preventing wildfires caused by power lines while maintaining a reliable electricity supply. 

Specifically, the study proposed an optimization model to reroute power flows through the grid's vulnerable parts, particularly during dry and windy conditions. The model operates under a decision-dependent uncertainty framework, which optimizes models where the outcomes or uncertainties depend on the decisions made within the model. The team used this framework to assess how different power system operations influence the probability of line failure due to potential wildfire ignition. 


Statistics show the severity of the issue

Statistics show the severity of the issue. Image used courtesy of the University of Michigan


The researchers also used the framework to shift network topology based on increased fire risk, reducing power flow through high-risk areas and lowering the risk of line failure. The study found that decreasing power flow through areas with a high probability of wildfire ignition notably reduced the risk of line failure. Utility companies could use these findings to modify distribution networks and prepare for dry and windy seasons, minimizing costly damages. 


Power Grid Optimization for a Safer Future

The optimization approach addresses a significant challenge in the modern grid infrastructure. Wildfires have inflicted substantial damage, including $700 million in damages to California's transmission and distribution systems between 2000 and 2016. Modifying the current electric power infrastructure with minimal changes to the physical infrastructure can significantly decrease the risk of wildfire ignition and prevent maintenance costs. 

The team noted further research should prioritize pinpointing where upgrades to line segments with switching devices are essential. These smart upgrades can also increase the flexibility of power system operations and help manage more frequent and widespread wildfires.